THE MEN­TAL GAME

Australian Mountain Bike - - Between The Tape - WORDS: SE­BAS­TIAN JAYNE PHOTO: NICK MUZIK/SPORTZPICS

They say sport is the great­est un­scripted drama, and time and time again this is proved to be a bru­tally ac­cu­rate ac­count of a sup­posed ‘leisure’ ac­tiv­ity. This drama plays out, of­ten to the detri­ment of the dreams and as­pi­ra­tions of those bat­tling be­tween the tape. Some drama is some­what pre­dictable in cy­cling. An at­tack may oc­cur where the strong­est rider breaks clear of the rest and the only re­main­ing ques­tion is whether or not they will be caught. At the end, there will be a win­ner and a loser - the win­ner will be happy, the loser not so much. Some races, though, play host to far more ab­surd oc­cur­rences. Ones that have spec­ta­tors gob­s­macked and ath­letes pos­ing the sort of ques­tions that can keep you up at nights. Why and what if…? For ex­am­ple: Why, when you ride your bike for 10–20 hours a week over all man­ner of ter­rain, do you only get a flat tyre dur­ing the 90 min­utes when you are rac­ing? Why, af­ter many thou­sands of rev­o­lu­tions dur­ing train­ing, does your chain break just as you leave the start line? Why did a rider who ex­cels at tack­ling tech­ni­cal ter­rain crash dur­ing their warm-up mere mo­ments be­fore their start? What if I never got the flat tyre? What if that chain never broke? Could I have got third? Sec­ond? To twist the knife fur­ther, could I have won? Th­ese ques­tions can weigh heavy on the minds of any ath­lete found at the wrong end of sport’s tu­mul­tuous dis­po­si­tion. But what about the other end of the spec­trum? The end where the sun is shin­ing and wins are counted in mul­ti­ples. At the Absa Cape Epic in March the event was dom­i­nated by the Scott-SRAM team’s pair­ing of Nino Schurter and Matthias Stirne­mann. With their over­all win be­ing propped up by mul­ti­ple stage vic­to­ries, it would seem the team had achieved a seem­ingly mag­i­cal level of op­ti­mi­sa­tion of their feng shui. But was it magic that meant they could travel close to 700km across South Africa without a race-end­ing me­chan­i­cal or ‘oc­cur­rence’ that could rob them the win? To an­swer, let’s look back to 2012 and the Lon­don Olympics where Nino Schurter lost - go­ing out­side on the last cor­ner and al­low­ing Jaroslav Kul­havy to come up the in­side and take the gold medal. It was the ul­ti­mate ‘what if’ for Nino to pon­der for an­other four years. But as we learnt at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Nino didn’t let it con­strain him but in­stead used it to de­velop him. In­stead of pon­der­ing ‘why’ or ‘what if’ for too long, it was ‘what’s next?’. It was all about learn­ing from mis­takes and mov­ing for­ward. So maybe that at­ti­tude to ad­ver­sity is what helped Scott-SRAM power to vic­tory. I’m sure top notch me­chan­ics and equip­ment helped. Some rather large watt bombs most cer­tainly aided their vic­tory. But it cer­tainly wasn’t magic. Over­com­ing ad­ver­sity is one men­tal bat­tle that could have helped the XCO rid­ers of Scott-SRAM take the win in a stage race over pure marathon rid­ers. But there was also a sec­ond bat­tle that could have been at play - com­po­sure. Ev­ery time I turned on the live stream, Nino and Matthias were flow­ing ef­fort­lessly along one of the Cape Epic’s many tech­ni­cal trails. In sec­tions where other rid­ers were flat­ting or crash­ing, the Scot­tSRAM team re­mained com­posed, play­ing to their strengths and sav­ing en­ergy for the lat­ter stages of the race. Maybe this is why they won so dom­i­nantly. In a cross-coun­try race, ev­ery­thing is counted in split sec­onds and you rarely have time to dis­sect a rider’s ‘process’. But through­out a week-long stage race, ev­ery­thing is more drawn out and you have time to an­a­lyse. We’ve al­ready dis­cov­ered two pos­si­ble men­tal ad­van­tages which leads us to ques­tion how much the men­tal side of things can come into play in sport. Be­ing phys­i­cally pre­pared with ad­e­quate equip­ment is without doubt of para­mount im­por­tance. But the men­tal side of things is pos­si­bly of equal stand­ing, if not edg­ing ahead slightly. Espe­cially when the win is on the line.

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